Monthly Archives: April 2014

A screenshot from Space Panic

Space Panic: Drilling Down a Genre

I remember being fascinated with Space Panic when I first spied it in the arcades in 1980. A game genre will eventually become so ingrained over time that you lose sight of what it really meant, but the idea of platforms and ladders introduced in Universal, Ltd.’s Space Panic helped video games construct worlds that you could clamber around in, like an electronic equivalent of an Erector Set. Combine this world with an ever more difficult puzzle element where you dig holes to trap and dispatch angry aliens, sometimes requiring planning over multiple levels, and you get the perfect kind of gameplay, something that is easy to grasp but difficult to master. Added into the mix is a frenetic pace as your antagonists get more and more quick at chasing you around the screen, and a deadline to accomplish your mission as your oxygen slowly runs out.

Space Panic cleared the way for a myriad of platform games, from Donkey Kong to Dig Dug and beyond. You ever climb the side of a building and run across the rooftops in an Assassin’s Creed game? It all started here, dig it? For more information on Space Panic, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial video game cartridge, unearthed after Atari burial over 30 years ago

Atari’s E.T. and the Great Video Game Crash

Microsoft and a documentary film crew have today unearthed some cartridges of Atari’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial game for the 2600, buried as “defective materials” by the company some 30 years ago as the video game industry was crumbling like so much cheap cement.

The only thing “defective” about E.T. was its inscrutable and endlessly frustrating gameplay.  Atari mother corporation Warner Communications paid Steven Spielberg 21 million dollars for the home console and arcade game rights to the movie, and programmer Howard Scott Warshaw hammered out the game in a breakneck six week deadline to get it out in stores for Christmas 1982.   Warshaw was present today among spectators viewing the excavation of his most infamous creation. 

Box art for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a video game for the Atari VCS/2600 1982

Box art for the dreaded Atari E.T. game

A run of five million cartridges were released to stores: only one million eventually sold, becoming a well-publicised flop that tarnished Atari’s reputation with retail game buyers and furnished another nail in the company’s coffin. Along with surplus cartridges for other games, as well as various hardware prototypes, a convoy of tractor-trailer trucks shipped the unsold copies of E.T. to the landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico where they were literally swept under the rug.

E.T. wasn’t solely responsible for the video game market cratering in 1983 – 1984, as a lack of technical innovation and the booming home computer market also took their toll. But it remains a touchstone of the hubris and failure that helped bury the greatest video game company in the world, and with it an entire industry.

For more information on E.T. and the Great Video Game Crash, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Photo of unearthed E.T. cartridge from the Twitter account of Larry Hryb, aka Major Nelson, @majornelson

A fight for supremacy around the sun of Spacewar!

Spacewar!: A Spin Around the Sun

Created by a group of hackers at MIT in 1962, the pull of Spacewar! on nascent computer gamers was as strong as the gravity well of the blazing sun in the game.

I’d like to say that Steve Russell “led” the group that developed the game, but he didn’t earn the nickname “Slug” for his programming alacrity. The rest of the team, consisting of Wayne Witanen, J. Martin Graetz, Alan Kotok, Peter Samson and Dan Edwards had to prod Russell every inch of the way, constantly throwing in pieces of the programming puzzle to skirt around the roadblocks Russell would profess were preventing him from continuing.

When they were finished, they had 9K worth of rolled-up paper-tape program that would create the foundation of the entire video game industry. Over a field of stars, two spaceships face off in a duel with limited missile supplies and fuel.  Besides each other, players would also have to avoid the bending gravity of a central star, eager to pull them down to their destruction. The game was such a hit around MIT that playing it was banned during school hours, and copies of the program were included by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) with each installation of the computer system Spacewar! was created on: the PDP-1.

Image of A PDP-1 minicomputer, the same model used in the creation of Spacewar!

The PDP-1 computer by DEC

Spacewar! influenced later games made by entrepreneurs intent on creating the video game industry, including Computer Space in 1971, the first mass-produced arcade video game, made by future Atari co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. It also inspired Larry Rosenthal, creator of the first vector game Space Wars in 1977, as well as Ed Logg, creator of 1979′s phenomenally successful Asteroids. Spacewar! blazed forth from the minds of those early computer hackers at MIT, lighting the way for others to follow.

For more information on the history of Spacewar!, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Jeff Bridges and Steven Lisberger on the set of Tron, a video game themed movie by Disney 1982

Greetings, Programs! A Look at Tron

Tron is a movie that either turns people on or off, like the digital gates inside computer chips. Written by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird and directed by Lisberger, it made an attempt to take viewers on a journey into the inner world of computer circuitry.  It was released in the summer of 1982, and among various visual marvels was the first feature film to extensively use computer generated imagery (CGI).

Still of lightcycles in battle from Tron, a video game themed movie from Disney 1982

Light Cycles race in the grid in Tron

 

It tells the story of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a computer hacker who sits in a room over his video game arcade, trying to hack into the main computer at Encom, his former employer. He hopes to pull out of their system information that proves that some popular games of his were stolen by co-worker Ed Dillinger (David Warner), who then passed them off as his own and was subsequently kicked up the corporate ladder. With the help of friends and current Encom employees Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan), Flynn infiltrates the company and attempts to pull the data. During the process, the Master Control Program zaps Flynn with a laser and flings him into the computer world, where he must fight for his life on the gaming grid and interact with the computer program equivalents of his friends.

Still of Yori and Tron from Tron, a video game themed film by Disney 1982

Yori and Tron in a clutch

 

Having Disney somewhat over a barrel at the time due to their waning animation department, as well as the poor performances of their live-action fare, Lisberger and the producers had carte-blanche to call in heavy hitters to help design the film; no less than three cutting-edge computer animation houses were used to produce the 15 minutes of fully-rendered CGI in Tron. Syd Mead and Jean “Moebius” Giraud were also drafted to help create the world of Tron and its computer denizens. The film might have an impenetrable story, but at least it looks marvelous.

Looks only get you so far, though. Tron ultimately disappointed at the box office, but you can’t completely fault the film; Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial juggernaut sucked all of the oxygen out of theatres that summer of 1982, asphyxiating such other noble genre efforts as Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tron has definitely generated a cult status for itself over the intervening years, however, and at the very least served as a proving ground for the burgeoning field of feature film computer animation.

To pull more information on the history of Tron out of the Encom servers, slip past the MCP and access the Dot Eaters article here.

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Still of the MPC from Tron, a video game themed film by Disney 1982